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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Spotlight: Cinematographer Michael Simmonds on Working Collaboratively with Ramin Bahrani

You’ve probably seen Michael Simmonds work, even if you don’t realize it. The ace cinematographer has been very busy over the last few years shooting lots of movies, including notable docs Project Nim and The Order of Myths. He’s also shot all of Ramin Bahrani’s better-known films: Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Plastic Bag, a terrific short narrated by Werner Herzog, and featured on Futurestates.

I first met Michael at Sundance years ago when Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s first major feature, was playing there, and his work so impressed me that that I’ve followed it since. A while back (okay, a LONG while back, like in October), we chatted through email about the way in which he and Bahrani collaborate, and he was kind enough to allow me to share his thoughts with you here.

Kim Voynar: How does the filmmaking process working with Ramin differ from your other projects? Specifically are there ways in which the process is more collaborative? Do you have more creative input, artistic freedom?

Michael Simmonds: I met Ramin in 2002 at Tribeca Film Festival after a screening of Amir Naderi’s Marathon, which I shot. He asked me if i would read his script which dealt with people who are mentally, physically and literally stuck in boxes. It was a very early draft of Man Push Cart, and was really good. Since that first encounter we probably have not gone more than a few weeks without talking.

Although Ramin and I communicate frequently, our conversations are always focused on cinema, movies we are watching and films we would like to make. There are no “meetings” but rather a consistent dialogue which has continued for 8 years and counting. It is a collaboration based on mutual respect and a common desire to make the best films we can. Films that we as audience members would want to see. No creative statement is off-limits between the two of us. Of course as the director he has no obligation what so ever to use the idea I may bring to the table, but I know he has thought about it and taken the idea seriously.

We began making these films when we were fairly young and had little resources. I was probably 24 or so when we made Man Push Cart. My involvement in other aspects of the production aside from my DP responsibilities began out of necessity rather than some sort of enthusiasm.

KV: I’m curious as to whether your input has ever influenced or changed the story itself either during prep or once filming has started? Or does Ramin come into it knowing exactly the story he wants to tell and then just looks to you for input on how to frame that
onscreen?

MS: Ramin is a director who is very focused on blocking with the camera and actors. He re-writes his scripts with the camera once on location. On Chop Shop we shot the entire film on a little camera for what felt like months … we have never done a “table reading” that i can remember, but rather rehearse on location with a video camera.

Ramin has his own process (for working with) cast which I have every little to do with. He might bring me in at a early stage to meet a few people so they have a familiarity as the project moves forward. Then after an amount of rehearsal period, we will bring me in to shoot some rehearsals. This is to introduce the actors to the process of working with a director AND cameraman.

For Goodbye Solo our challenge was primarily shooting in a car, which neither Ramin or i had done at that point. So we began by taking the obvious first step and spent a few days watching every car film we could find. We then went over the script together and discussed what we wanted tonally from each car scene and what type of location, framing and lighting would best match the scene. Then we took a digital still camera and photographed each other as the actors in the actual picture car to figure out if the ideas worked and how to technically achieve the shots.

Ramin and I have shot most of our films in one continuous shot, very rarely using “shot reverse shot”. Shooting in a car is very time consuming due to set up time and car scenes cannot be done in one take for obvious blocking reasons. We created shot lists and blocking to emphasize what was happening in the story.

For instance, at some point William starts to sit in the front seat of the cab due to the fact that he is no longer a passenger in the car but rather a friend. We would take this logic and find the best shot to show this.

There are a million and one ways to make a movie and Ramin and I have spent three-and-a-half movies working in a very close and collaborative way. I do not have the same relationship with other directors — but I don’t have the same relationship with ANY two directors. Each collaboration is its own unique experience and process.

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“The core fear is what can happen to you, personally. Your body. That’s what horror films deal with, precisely. We are a very thin skin wrapped around a pumping heart and guts. At any given moment it can come down to that, be it diseases, or somebody’s assault, or war, or a car wreck. You could be reduced to the simple laws of physics and your body’s vulnerability. The edged weapon is the penultimate weapon to disclose that reality to you.”
~ Wes Craven, 1996, promoting Scream

MAMET
Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position. The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. That’s what drama is. It comes down to that. It’s not about theme, it’s not about ideas, it’s not about setting, but what the protagonist wants. What gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how, at the end of the play, do we see that event culminated? Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. You break it down into three acts.

INTERVIEWER
Does this explain why your plays have so little exposition?

MAMET
Yes. People only speak to get something. If I say, Let me tell you a few things about myself, already your defenses go up; you go, Look, I wonder what he wants from me, because no one ever speaks except to obtain an objective. That’s the only reason anyone ever opens their mouth, onstage or offstage. They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective… The question is where does the dramatist have to lead you? Answer: the place where he or she thinks the audience needs to be led. But what does the character think? Does the character need to convey that information? If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist. You’re saying, in effect, Let’s stop the play. That’s what the narration is doing—stopping the play… It’s action, as Aristotle said. That’s all that it is—exactly what the person does. It’s not what they “think,” because we don’t know what they think. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do, what they’re physically trying to accomplish on the stage. Which is exactly the same way we understand a person’s character in life—not by what they say, but by what they do. Say someone came up to you and said, I’m glad to be your neighbor because I’m a very honest man. That’s my character. I’m honest, I like to do things, I’m forthright, I like to be clear about everything, I like to be concise. Well, you really don’t know anything about that guy’s character. Or the person is onstage, and the playwright has him or her make those same claims in several subtle or not-so-subtle ways, the audience will say, Oh yes, I understand their character now; now I understand that they are a character. But in fact you don’t understand anything. You just understand that they’re jabbering to try to convince you of something.
~ David Mamet

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